Moving back to the South of France Part 2
Yesterday I blogged about how much I loved the south of France and how I never imagined I would ever leave the French Riviera, which you can read here. Today I’m going to explain why Hubs and I made that incredibly hard decision to leave.
For a very long time the sunshine, warmth, beaches and mountains made up for so many negatives, but in the end the downside of France and the French Riviera got the better of us and we headed back to the grey, cold, rainy UK.
You might be wondering what on earth could be that bad, so I’ll try and explain here. As with everything on this blog, this is based on my own personal experiences of the south of France, and the French Riviera in particular.
It is hard to have career progress in France. France is a funny old country, where the word “entrepreneur” originates from, but where it seems to be seen as a swear word. In the UK I have found that with hard work you can do a lot of jobs (obviously not specific roles like a doctor etc), whether you’ve got a university degree or not.
In France it is not so. If you don’t have a degree it is unlikely that you will ever earn much more than minimum wage, unless you become a professional footballer or pop star. Even if you do have a degree it’s still not that easy: anything less than a 5 year master’s degree (called Bac +5) is sniffed at, and then there is the league table of all the higher education establishments – in France you have universities, “écoles” and “grandes écoles” which are roughly the equivalent of Oxbridge in the UK. Not to mention the importance of what subject you study.
Hubs used to work for a fairly large IT company, and when they interviewed candidates for jobs they had a table to calculate the starting salary based on which “école” the candidate had gone to and which year they had graduated. Your previous experience or any capability doesn’t enter into the equation. I know of 50 year olds who are asked by recruiters which “école” they went to and which year they graduated.
In France your whole career for the rest of your life is based on decisions you made at age 16-18! It doesn’t matter how hard you work, or what you achieve post university, you will always hit a ceiling unless you went to the right “école” at the right time, and studied the right subject.
My fellow students from my modern languages degree course in the UK have gone on to impressive careers, with good salaries, promotions and responsibility. In France my degree is the worst possible one you can do, as it’s the course that everyone does when they don’t know what else to do.
So over the years in France I found myself working as a trilingual PA to a man linked to the Russian Mafia, who I saw on the local news one Friday evening in handcuffs, being led out of the local courthouse. Then several years later I worked for a self-professed witch: she claimed she had been burned at the stake in a former life, and that she had found the cure for cancer but the Illuminati didn’t want her to share the information. I used to work two days a week at her stunning mansion, where she would serve me up a child-size portion of salad for lunch and say “that’s enough for you”, strangely enough with the stress and food restrictions I lost a lot of weight in that job!
It is very hard to get hired on a permanent contract in France as it is almost impossible to fire anyone, so employers are very wary of committing to a CDI (contract of unlimited duration) which means that the job market is far more static than in the UK. This also means that people often stay in jobs or companies from graduation to retirement.
For a long time Hubs and I were happy enough to just go along with things like this – he had a good job, in a good company, with good perks. For several years I taught English to professionals in companies, which meant I wasn’t busy during the holiday months, and used to spend July and August teaching a few hours around partying in the evenings and lazing on the beach during the day. (Although my salary reflected these low hours too, sadly.) Following this I got a great job, for a great company, with great perks. But the office in France was very small and there was only so much progress I could make there.
Over the years Hubs and I set up a business together, I also set up a business on my own, and gradually we both realised that France is not very supportive of anyone looking to get ahead. In France there is a culture of paying for and working “au black”, which means undeclared work or cash-in-hand, and literally everyone is at it, because the taxes and the whole system for running a business makes it impossible to do everything legally (as we found out the hard way!).
The last straw career-wise came when Hubs started working for a company who had promised to take him on as headcount after 6 months, so he worked hard, proving himself. After the 6 months his line manager told him that he wouldn’t be able to take him on. The reason why? His hard work was making the other long-term colleagues there uncomfortable as it was showing them up, and the line manager didn’t want a fight on his hands, so it was easier not to take on the person who was going to stir things up!
Sadly, running your own business is not a viable alternative either, there is no equivalent to the sole trader status we have in the UK. I ran my own business in France under the “auto-entrpreneur” system (the closest to UK’s self-employed status), which was great for the first few months, then I realised that I was fast approaching the ceiling of 32,900€ (approx £26,800) in annual turnover, meaning I would have to move over to something like a limited company, and pay an enormous percentage of my turnover back to the government.
Neither of us could handle being in a country where, aged 34, we felt we were treading water until retirement.
Funnily enough since arriving in London we’ve met so many career-minded French expats who have left France for the very same reason and have had huge professional successes in the UK. These are often intelligent hard-workers, who didn’t go to the “right” university, or do the “right” course for France.
Upon arriving in London Hubs and I quickly found good jobs with better career prospects and far better salaries than what we’d left behind in France. What’s more we were doing jobs that we enjoyed and that were leading somewhere: we were both promoted within 6 months of starting our London jobs.
I think all the other negatives of France that I list below would have been bearable for us if we’d had career opportunities. For some people this isn’t an issue. For us it was. And no amount of sunshine could make up for the lack of a career for us.
Other downsides about France/the French Riviera that made it easier for us to leave:
France is a country for the very rich or the very poor. If you earn very little money in France then the government will help you out with numerous benefits. When I was a new graduate in France my salary was the equivalent of £750/month and my rent was the equivalent of £200/month. Despite having no debts, no children, no loans, no car to run and no major expenses the state gave me a whopping £190/month in housing benefit, bringing my rent to a measly £10/month. I thought I was in heaven.
However once Hubs and I started earning decent money we were suddenly taxed lots and (understandably) were eligible for zero benefits. The majority of income tax in France is paid under a similar system to self-assessment in the UK rather than taxed at the source, but there are so many tax breaks you can claim (having a cleaner, installing a fireplace and many more), not to mention those who are dishonest with their taxes, that it means only 1 in 2 taxpayers in France actually pays taxes.
Add that to the amount of benefits that exist in France (and the number of people fiddling benefits), and those few taxpayers end up paying a serious amount of their hard-earned salary for others.
There are so so many benefits in France that you can live very comfortably off of them, very easily. Just one example – unemployment benefit is paid for nearly 2 years and you receive nearly 60% of your previous gross salary, including any bonuses! I don’t know what it’s like in the rest of France, but on the French Riviera where the weather is good, there are beaches for the summer and mountains for skiing, it attracts an awful lot of “chômeurs” (unemployed people). In fact many people work 6 months a year in order to claim unemployment benefit the other 6 months of the year, which they spend on the beach or skiing.
Bureaucracy really is a French word. In France you have to fill out numerous papers for anything and everything. To get married in France I had to have a birth certificate issued within the 3 months before we handed in our “dossier” to the “mairie” (equivalent of the registry office). My original birth certificate, issued when I was born wouldn’t cut it. Which astounds me. It’s not like the information has changed!
Changing your address on your driving licence or car registration papers requires a visit to your local “Centre Administratif” and if you’re lucky, just an hour or two of your time wasted.
When Hubs and I set up our business (a luxury travel agency) we needed a licence to exercise this type of business. The problem was we needed a piece of paper from Establishment A to be able to get another paper from Establishment B, except neither Establishment would issue their paper first. This led to a year – that’s right, a year – of fighting and threatening both of them before we could get anywhere and actually start taking on any clients.
I could go on and on, but suffice to say that in France we had a massive 4 drawer filing cupboard for our recent, important papers, whilst our archived paperwork took up numerous boxes in cupboards too. We left France in 2010 and stored all our important papers with friends; when we went to visit at the end of last year we sifted through our archives and were finally able to destroy most of it. In comparison, after nearly 4 years of UK life we have 2 expanding wallets that store all our papers, for all 4 of us, including my business papers too….
The French can be quite negative and pessimistic. The Brits seem to think that they are all doom and gloom, but believe me they are upbeat and optimistic in general, in comparison to the French. Funnily enough it is French people who have made this remark to me over the years – that the Brits tend to be more “up” than the French, and that the French tend to complain about anything and everything. And so I observed. And it is often true. The French have more of a tendency to be down on things and “VDM” (Vie De Merde– literally “life of shit”), whilst the Brits tend to give things a go more, and take a chance.
The French don’t like letting you do what you want. Still on the same subject there is a real suspicion of others in France, this fear that someone might have done better, have more or be luckier than you. So neighbours are often looking to see what next door have done to their house/garden before denouncing them to the local council.
It makes me laugh that in our London road there are permanently builders around, extending and improving houses, and when French friends come to visit they always ask if the neighbours don’t complain about the work being done.
In France you have to apply to the local council to make the slightest change to your property/land, even minor things like putting up a garden shed. And the council can decide whether or not to grant you the right.
Madly enough as well, in France you are not allowed to hang your washing out in your back garden or on your balcony. Which really is crazy as most people live in tiny apartments or houses, with no spare bedrooms and no tumble driers. I just used to ignore this and hang my washing up outside, my defence being that “liberté” was written on all French money. Where is the “liberté” of not being allowed to hang my washing out in my own garden?!?
The French can be very jealous. Harking back again to qualifications and degrees, there is a whole pastime in France that centres around being jealous of others. Of their car, their house, their clothes, their holidays. This probably has a lot to do with the whole working “au black” too. And this is possibly more prevalent on the French Riviera where there is such opulent wealth on display too (which is mostly wealth that has been accumulated elsewhere).
The French can be very selfish. There is an expression in French “seul au monde” which means alone in the world, and it is used a lot to refer to other drivers on the road. And it is MADDENING! There is literally zero respect on the roads on the French Riviera. I would be driving along the Prom in Nice (the 3 lane road that runs alongside the beach), I’d put my indicator on to change lanes and the cars would speed up to stop me from moving into their lane. That’s just one of many examples.
On the same subject there is dog poo EVERYWHERE, and pretty much no one clears up after their dogs. When I watched the scene in Sex and the City where Carrie walked in dog poo in Paris in her beautiful shoes, I was all “I KNOW!”.
The dog poo is so bad that the streets are hosed down every day as otherwise it would be unbearable.
The French Riviera is very expensive. Going out in Nice and the surrounding area is not cheap; a night out at the pub is always an expensive affair so it is hard to be sociable in the same way that you might be in the UK. Even after being back in the UK for nearly 4 years, when I get change back from a tenner after a round of 2 drinks it still feels like a cheap night out.
As I’ve said before I love France and I love the French. I also have lovely French friends who are not like this. But after nearly 4 years in the UK I love the career opportunities we have here, I love the respect that people have for one another – in London people fall over themselves to help me on and off public transport/up and down stairs with the buggy, I love the clean streets, I love the optimism of people, I love that neighbours are friends with each other or at worst are polite to each other (although we were lucky enough to have some great neighbours in France, as well as some awful ones), I love that those who are on benefits usually genuinely deserve them, I love that I can make money for myself without feeling that half of it is going back to the government, I love that I don’t have to spend a whole day a month going through my paperwork, and that I don’t have to waste hours in government administrative offices.
Do I miss Nice? You bet I do. I miss my French and expat friends who are still there, I miss the region in general and I certainly miss the climate (although the winters over the last 6 years or so have been colder and wetter than previously I’ve found), but do I see myself moving back? No. Not if I can help it.
But don’t listen to me. I said that about moving back to the UK too.
Never say never.